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Sunday, 11 March 2012

I Misplaced It At The Movies: Something Weird Video

Lux Interior once described his band, The Cramps, thus; "What we are about is 'other worlds', and independently made horror movies of the fifties and sixties are 'other worlds'. Collectively they form one complete 'other world', but each is an 'other world' in itself".
And it's that sense of an alternative universe created through a collection of disparate yet tenuously linked movies that I am here today to discuss.

The world of Something Weird Video!
Now, here at the ~Streetlamp~ we may often come across as taking everything a bit too seriously, whether it's music, art, left-wing politics or films; and on that latter subject we may come across as a bunch of lemon-suckers sitting about watching Bunuel, Bulgarian art-movies, Bergman, and some other pretentious toss beginning with B. But in truth there nothing we, or perhaps I should emphasise ME, likes than some good old off-kilter, skewiff, politically incorrect, brain-frying exploitation movies. Y'know...real cinematic cat-litter!
And nobody deals in that kind of movie madness like Something Weird Video!

SWV was formed circa 1990 by former grindhouse film-theatre projectionist Mike Vraney who decided the world would be better off for seeing his collection of sexploitation movies, bizarre stag reels, obscure low budget horror movies, and some of the maddest cinema imaginable. Pretty soon, via the good old VHS, he had a thriving company on his hands.
(Mike Vraney on the right, with legendary exploitaion producer David F Friedman)

I first became aware of Something Weird around 1994 when I began using an underground network of video sellers to get movies that were never released in the UK. Finally I was able to get my hands on all those mad films I had only ever read about in Psychotronic or Incredibly Strange Films. The tapes I got were bootlegs of American videos, and I noticed that many had a Something Weird logo at the start of them. When I went on holiday to Florida the next year, I bought a load of US film magazines and began to find out more about Something Weird and sent off for a catalogue of their releases (as well as acquiring a multi-region video recorder). Remember this was in the days just before the Internet so everything had to be done by letter or fax, but this added to the thrill of hunting down some of the most surreal films out there.
Since the Internet took off, so did Something Weird, who issued hundreds of DVDs and who now offer thousands of films for download.
I'd like to take this opportunity to look at three of my personal favourite films (amongst many) from their output, one of which is one of my favourite films of all time.
So let's start with that one, and let's take a look at 'Bad Girls Go To Hell'....

It's a pity that so many non-porno movies that dare to deal solely with the issue, and repercussions of (whisper it)...sex, are often dumped in the bins marked 'Worst Movies Ever Made'. Once this happens, so many interesting movies just seem to disappear, becoming totally under-valued.
So let's hear it for Doris Wishman and this, which may well be her greatest movie. 'Bad Girls Go To Hell' is a gem, a highly individualistic fever-dream of erotic (but never pornographic) intensity.
The movie benefits greatly from its star, the astonishing looking Gigi Darlene, who appears to be in every frame of the movie's running time. She is quite simply one of the most beautiful screen-stars I have ever seen. In 'Emmanuelle', Sylvia Kristel was praised for looking sexy(or sexual) without even being aware that she was being so. Well it's the same with Gigi here, every movement she makes on screen seems somehow sexually charged, without her having the slightest inkling of her power. Men become weak and slobbering before her, unable to control their vile sexual lusts and frustrations, and as always seems to be the case, it's Gigi who suffers as a result.

(You can view the trailer here)

Driven from her domestic bliss (her husband is the only man in the movie who seems capable of controlling his desires while around her) after killing a deviant who attacks her, Gigi finds herself in New York where she is befriended by a struggling alcoholic man who invites her to stay at his place. After mistakenly giving him alcohol as a 'thank-you' for his kindness, the man goes berserk and beats her, causing her to flee again. She next finds herself living with a lesbian who is involved with a sleazy pornographer (pimp?). Again, it all ends in tears. The ambiguous ending to the film is either a happy ending or a bad ending depending really upon the viewer.


Whilst I have praised Gigi Darlene highly for this film, the main credit must go to Doris Wishman. Often ridiculed, the simple truth is that if Doris was male and/or European, she would be hailed in the same breaths as Godard, Resnais and Truffaut. Her camera work and simplistic, minimal cinematography are effortlessly excellent. The film moves with a beat and tempo all its own. There is no doubt that this is a purely singular vision at work, an auteur's vision. It's almost incredible that Gigi Darlene can spend so much of the movie in state of complete undress, yet we see NOTHING. The movie would hardly earn a PG certificate these days, certainly not for nudity. It's a masterclass of editing. The clear crisp photography gives the movie a look all of it's own, especially in the scenes in (a bizarrely empty) Central Park. Further credit should go to the excellent score. The jaunty flute-laden music that accompanies the scene where Gigi prepares coffee in the kitchen at the beginning of the movie, and the garage-rock style accompaniment to the scene where the two girls are dancing, are both fantastic.
There are a couple of mysteries though. Both involving images that accompany the opening title sequence. Some of the images in the titles NEVER appear in the film. Given that one of the images is also one of the most frequently used as a poster for the film (Darlene Bennett in her underwear), it makes me wonder if a lot of footage was never used, or has simply been lost over the years.
Nevertheless, I cant rate this movie highly enough, even though it clearly wont be to everyone's tastes. It is, in my opinion, Doris Wishman's best film, and given that Gigi Darlene appears to have so few movies, I would say it's her star turn.
Gigi only appeared in a handful of movies (most of which I now own) including the charmingly titled 'The Beast That Killed Women', before just seeming to vanish. Bizarrely, she was last heard of in the opening titles to one of Michael 'Snuff' Findlay's Flesh Trilogy of movies. In the opening titles, which are written as graffiti on a toilet wall, someone has scrawled 'Whatever happened to Gigi Darlene?'
What indeed?

Despite it's reputation, Something Weird did a lot more than just peddle smut. They also sought out and released mega-obscure Sci-Fi, foreign-imported low-budget horror movies, Drive-In Intermission films, Sword & Sandal movies, drug films, public information shorts, and films that could only be described as 'time capsules', like my next choice; a film that has been released as both 'Something's Happening' and 'The Hippie Revolt'. The version I saw used the former title, so that's what I'll use in my description....
"San Fransisco in the middle 60's was a very special time and place to be part of", wrote the late great Hunter S Thompson, and this documentary, shot as it actually occurred, tries to prove this. However time has been rather unkind to both that period of history, and indeed this movie itself.

Most of the footage was shot in the Haight-Ashbury district in the Spring and Summer of 1967. The entire area seems swamped with hippies, beatniks and weirdos. Long hair, beards, kaftans, flowers, flutes, bongos, and wild, wacky, jerky dancing seem to the requirements of the day.
What makes this documentary stand out from other similar films of the time (Mondo Mod for example), is that there is no arch, wise-cracking, patronising voice-over narration here. None of that "Hey Daddio, check these groovy cats out....Man, that's a blast. Far Out!!!" stuff. Instead we get genuine voice-overs from the people who were there. Some are very lucid and intelligent (even if they have evidently been ingesting some mind-altering substances), others however drawl and slur and talk gibberish, but this all adds to the realness of the piece. Also, there's no ADR of those interviewed on screen, so what we hear on the soundtrack are the genuine sounds of the time.

My favourite sequence occurs about half way through, in a segment called 'Life In A Commune'. A young man tells us about life in the 'Strawberry Fields' commune. As he enthuses, the camera pans around to show nothing but absolute squalor. He goes on to tell how a young woman had too many candles in her abode and how it caught fire. He saved her but she received 60% burns to her body. We see the burnt remains of her shack, and as his voice breaks with emotion, the camera closes in on a burnt and melted copy of 'The Free Wheelin Bob Dylan'. Next up is a young mother who regales all her hippie friends (and we the viewers) with her mystical/drug-related stories. She may well be tripping, but she remains lucid and enthusiastic in her oration. "We USE dope, but dope is NOT our world" she tells us. Then she goes on to explain how she took LSD even before she had even gotten high on liquor. "And on that first trip I saw the face of Jesus" she goes on, while some mournful guitar-and-flute piece plays in the background.


The film ends with footage of an anti-Vietnam rally, at which Muhammad Ali is present. Here, the movie loses a point for it's subjective editing. A clean-cut 'square' young marine tells us he's going to Vietnam in 30 days for a 1 year tour of duty. He is then harangued by some bearded, wild haired hippy who tells him that most decent American citizens want the troops home, but before the young marine has a chance to answer, the scene cuts away. We hear the rally being declared unlawful, and then the police in riot-gear move in. Instead of showing us any conflict that may have occurred, we see the placards and banners lying broken and in tatters. A powerful and moving last image.

Time has also been unkind to the film-stock that was used. What was probably a very colourful time is now reduced to murky browns and oranges, giving the film an Autumnal, sepia tone, which actually works as this is now a period curio and nothing else. The film also loses a point for the lengthy 'trip-out' sequences, as pounding acid-rock instrumentals play out, we are bombarded with strobes and oil-lights. This is okay for a few minutes, but it goes on and on and on.
A real curio, and an intriguing portrait of a strange time and place.

In his blistering prose, Hunter S Thompson highlights the pitfalls, the 'meat-hook realities' that await the casualties from all this LSD burn-out, but Something's Happening got there first, capturing the skewering of the Age Of Aquarius as it actually withers on the vine. Something IS definitely happening, but it's not pretty, nor is it pretty far out, Man!
This would-be celebration of the Summer Of Love is actually pretty downbeat and sour, a sobering antidote to our parents' generation who'd have us believe that the whole 1960s was one huge party, and a youth culture who ultimately failed to paint it black. When Peter Fonda declares "We blew it!" at the end of Easy Rider he speaks for an entire generation.

I'll end this first dip into the world of Something Weird with a look at a film that pretty much sums up the whole label. A film so obscure, so oddball, so bereft of any sanity or logic that it defies description....but I'll try. Let's take a look at the 1970 effort known as 'Fluctuations'....
What on Earth is this?
Who is this aimed at??

On the surface it looks like just another 1960s sleazy, black and white, soft-core porn movie that Something Weird seem to specialise in. But this is a total off-the-wall oddity! There is ABSOLUTELY no plot to speak of here. What we have is a series of sexual scenes that seem to have been filmed, then re-filmed with other actors who appear in the film, then cut up and pasted together with no sense of continuity. We see a progression of various sexual encounters; couple, threesome, foursome, lesbian, whipping, (light) bondage, but the scenes often jump and other actors from different scenes appear in the scene taking the place of a previous actor. There is a bizarre karate fight at the start of the film between two men....this then turns into a fight between a man and a woman. The actress is wearing no underwear and some of the shots are extremely explicit. There is no real soundtrack to the film....there are a few minutes of library vibraphone music near the start, but that soon ends and the soundtrack becomes a loop of a woman moaning with pleasure (and using expletives). Add to this the sound of the karate fight (which often appears over the top of sex scenes), a phone-sex conversation which goes on for a while (and is EXTREMELY graphic...which adds to the erotic power of the film), the sound of clumping feet, and various extracts of random talking and sexual conversations...none of which ever match what is happening on screen. The acting is really odd too. Some of the actors (for example,the couple who engage in the naked karate scuffle, and who later share a bath) seem to be enjoying the experience; others seem very blank and emotionless. Especially the bearded actor who seems completely unmoved, even during the sexual scenes.

It's very difficult to tell what this all about, and what exactly the film makers had in mind when they made this. If Dali and Bunuel had decided to make ''L'Age D'or'' as a porn movie, this is probably what it would have looked like. Despite it's amateurishness, the film has a hypnotic power that keeps you watching throughout it's short (69mins) running time....which is not something you can say about a lot of these type of movies.
I'd love to have been in the Times Square dirty-mac crowd when this turned up on screen.
(Because of their anti-nudity stance, I can't bring you a Youtube clip of the movie, but you can watch the trailer - which makes even less sense than the finished film - here)

So there you have it....that's my first visit to the parallel world that is Something Weird, although I hope to bring you some more on the future.
Between 1995 and 2005, I pretty much became obsessed with hunting down as much SW's stuff as I could get hold of. This was difficult in the pre-Internet days but now, thanks to their rather superb website which I urge you to check out, it's simplicity it's self. Having taken a well earned sabbatical from their stuff (for the sake of my sanity), I've found myself succumbing to their comely charms once again. So it's a jaunt off to a particularly peculiar 'other-world' for me....

To Infinity in a dirty mac etc!!

~Gordon~

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